Thursday, July 7, 2016

Swiss Army Man: It's Always Ourselves We Find in the Sea

My saddle's waiting, come and jump on it

Swiss Army Man, the feature film debut of Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, directors of music videos like Turn Down For What), sounds like a movie created on a dare: a man on a deserted island is saved by riding a fart-powered corpse. In that regard, it feels like it could have similar origins to Kevin Smith's Tusk, which came from a joke about a man demanding his roommate dress up and act as a walrus.

Tusk stayed in the throwback-horror genre, and while interesting in its own way, was not terribly deep or successful. Swiss Army Man could have played it safe (as safe as a farting corpse movie could be) by either staying in the gross-out comedy genre or going for a clinically detached symbolist interpretation. Instead, Daniels refuse to shy from either puerile humor or art, and they make something funny and beautiful in the process.

Response has certainly been mixed (walk-outs at Sundance were reported). I particularly enjoyed Onur Tukel's comic-format review (spoilers!). I didn't come to quite the same conclusions as he did, but it's a thoughtful, thought-provoking piece. Interestingly, despite his deep reading and admiration of the film, Tukel decides he didn't like it. I felt the same way about Yorgos Lanthimos's The Lobster - appreciation of its daring and art, but little actual affection. On the contrary, like the conqueror worm, Swiss Army Man has chewed and nuzzled its way into my heart.

Cannes aftermath

Daniels open the film with a shot of the ocean. Soon we see floating pieces of trash bearing desperate messages: someone has had a boating accident. On a very small, uninhabitable island we find Paul Dano's disheveled, sunburnt Hank preparing to hang himself from the mouth of a cave. He hums a song to steady himself, but is distracted by the sudden appearance a body (Daniel Radcliffe) washed up on shore.

Startled, Hank falls from the cooler/gallows he's standing on, but manages to break the noose in his determination to reach the man, whom he hopes is still alive. He's not. A rumbling gives Hank hope, but it turns out to just be gas the bloated body is expelling. "That's funny," Hank sighs before taking the dead man's belt to use as a replacement noose. But before Hank can hang himself (again), the body, continuing to fart wildly, shows off a neat trick: it can propel itself in the water. Hank runs down the beach and - using the broken noose as a lasso - triumphantly rides the corpse out to sea.

Hank wakes up on a Pacific Northwest shore and goes off in search of civilization, carrying the body on his back (Dano apparently did actually carry Radcliffe through much of the film) and sometimes talking to it. To his alarm, it starts talking back. Hank names his new friend Manny and tells him about life, sex, pop culture, his deceased mother, his distant father, and his crush (using hikers' garbage to make educational props) as they look for home. Along the way, it becomes clear how lonely and unsure of himself Hank has been. And Manny's abilities continue to develop and surprise (for example, his penis works as a compass). Will the duo be ready to rejoin civilization by the time they make it back, and will they want to?

A bed of clover...and poop

Dano's and Radcliffe's performances are masterful, funny, and affecting, and Daniels capture the Pacific Northwest's coastline and redwoods in all their glory. Andy Hull and Robert McDowell's powerful, infectious score is a critical part of the movie. If the Oscars refuse to consider Dano's work in the farting corpse movie, they should at least acknowledge that score.

The Atlantic's David Sims is being fair when he writes in his otherwise glowing review that, "The downside of [the story] is that this is an indie film recycling an age-old indie trope - that of the introverted, lonely white dude, unlucky in love and pining for a silent woman who isn’t afforded similar agency by the plot." As Mary Elizabeth Winstead was pursued by an awkward Michael Cera in Scott Pilgrim, here she's pursued by an awkward Paul Dano. In that, it does feel annoyingly familiar and twee. I mean, look at these fucking hipsters who directed it.

That said, I saw a lot of myself in Dano's Hank. Like, a lot. Like...maybe despite being completely romance-adverse, I've seen someone on the bus and imagined our courtship, proposal, and wedding even though that might not be what I actually want out of life. I've never dressed up as a bus crush and made out with a corpse, though. I swear.

I swear

My Interpretation (Spoilers!)

I read the movie as a twist on the "life before your eyes" concept. I think Hank's opening suicide attempt was successful. When he first finds Manny, he tells the body that he had hoped when he died he would see the life he wished he had - full of music, friends, parties, and a lover. With Manny filling multiple roles, Hank gets to see all of that.

The final part of the movie, when Hank and Manny stumble into the backyard of a freaked-out Sarah (Hank's bus and instagram crush) and are soon besieged by law enforcement, the media, and Hank's father, confused me on the first viewing. Having thought about the film and seen it a second time, I think this part is Hank finally accepting himself and his reality.

He's been fantasizing about getting a second chance to talk to Sarah on the bus and having that interaction blossom into romance. But he finally realizes that even if he did get a second chance with Sarah...she's perfectly happy with her husband and child and would understandably be majorly creeped out by some stranger obsessing over her instagram photos. He realizes he wasn't really in love with Sarah, but that he wanted her happy life. He realizes that and accepts it, just as he realizes that even though he'll never have the connection he wants with his father, his father still loves him. Hank's acceptance of himself (symbolized by him admitting, with relief and delight, to farting in front of the crowd) gives him a final moment of peace as he dies.

Maybe that's what the Daniels meant, or maybe not, but that's what I saw in the movie. To close on the closing lines from e.e. cummings' "maggie and milly and molly and may,"

For whatever we lose(like a you or a me)
it's always ourselves we find in the sea

Image sources: 
Paul Dano riding Daniel Radcliffe like a water pony
A day at the beach
Sleepy Daniel Radcliffe
On the bus